The Somali al Qaeda-linked group al Shabab has claimed responsibility for an attack on a hotel, used by Somali and African Union troops. Over a dozen people are reported to have been killed.
Security officals said an al Shabab suicide bomber drove a car into the gates of the hotel in Bulabarde, 185 kilometres north of Mogadishu, detonating explosives.
Gunmen then sprayed the building with bullets, prompting a gun battle with Somali and African Union (AU) soldiers, lasting several hours.
A military spokesman for the African Union said three Somali soldiers, three AU soldiers from Djibouti and seven al Shabab fighters were killed in the attack, which took place in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
He added that several wounded soldiers were airlifted to a hospital in the Somali capital.
Somali military officials put the death toll at 21, while al Shabab said it was even higher, boasting that several senior officials were killed in the attack.
It claims to still be in control of large parts of the town, contradicting reports they were pushed out by Somali and AU troops last week.
Renewed AU offensive
The Bulabarde offensive was part of a fresh drive, launched by the UN-backed AU force this month, to end the insurgency.
The militants, who once controlled most of southern and central Somalia, were driven out of the capital two years ago, but have continued to launch attacks against government and security targets.
On Monday the group claimed responsibility for an attack on a military convoy just outside the capital.
According to news agency AFP, al Shabab claimed seven people, including three foreigners, were killed in the attack, although the AU said there were no casualties.
Al Shabab has also targeted several high-profile sites in Kenya and Uganda, in retaliation for their contribution of troops to the AU force.
It claimed to have carried out last September's attack on a shopping center in Nairobi, which left 67 people dead.
ccp/rc (AFP, Reuters, dpa)